Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Shaw: I was making a sedentary comment to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Brazier: I see.

As with so much of the Bill, the measures with which we are dealing are essentially frameworks for regulation and do not spell out what should be done. We therefore have to say what could happen and what has happened under parallel or similar legislation. The Children Act 1989 is the most recent and relevant legislation, and we have often referred to it in our debates. When that Act came into force, a string of small playgroups in my constituency were closed by over-zealous social workers. I arrived just in time to save one from closure; I discovered that it was being closed because it had insufficient provision of lavatories. The mathematical equation in the regulations showed that the playgroup had just below the right number. We were quickly able to show that the formula in the Department's guidance for the number of lavatories was not to be interpreted mechanically, and that group was saved. Two other groups, however, had already gone down—[Hon. Members: ''The pan?''] It is 10 minutes to 5 on a Thursday afternoon, and I am delighted to give way to the Minister.

Jacqui Smith: Was the hon. Gentleman flushed with success?

Mr. Brazier: I reassure the Minister that, although I have no expertise in that area, I was pleased to be on the front page of my local paper, which associated me with rescuing a playgroup from that lavatorial problem.

Mr. Bellingham: Is my hon. Friend aware that, although in Army circles it is appropriate to call such machines lavatories, the law does not recognise that word? In law, they are called toilets.

Mr. Brazier: I am reassured. I am learning all the time. I am glad to say that that playgroup is now thriving. I have visited the lavatories in question and they seem adequate for the job.

Mr. Llwyd: The hon. Gentleman said earlier that he had no expertise. How can he say that they looked adequate?

Mr. Brazier rose—

The Chairman: Order. It would be helpful if the Committee returned to the amendment.

Mr. Brazier: I should mention that the playgroup shared premises with my surgery.

You are right, Mrs. Roe, to return the debate to the amendment. My point is that legislation that the whole Committee would agree was passed in good faith—after lengthy consideration in Committee, during which hon. Members of all parties made very constructive contributions—has had an unfortunate effect on small groups of the kind I have been discussing. Those groups were not, of course, mother and toddler groups run by parents, but playgroups. We should take care that the Bill, whose principles have strong support on both sides of the House—notwithstanding a few votes on matters of detail—does not produce an unintended consequence.

Having had a bit of a laugh about my visits to the barber and a few other things, I remind the Committee that there really is scope for the clause, unless it is amended, to do a lot of damage. Adoption self-help groups are extremely important. Getting groups of people together, typically in the house of someone who is an adopter—the treasurer and secretary, if the group bothers to have a treasurer, are likely to be adopters—is important. Those groups do not need heavy-handed regulation. Surely it is reasonable for them to be exempted from the regulatory framework, however much we support the principle of regulation for more formal and structured adoption groups.

Jacqui Smith: I do not disagree with the sentiments of the hon. Gentleman and I hope that I can reassure him that the amendment is unnecessary. Clause 8(1) makes it clear that an adoption support agency for which there would be a registration requirement is an undertaking. The term ''undertaking'' has the same meaning as in section 121 of the Care Standards Act 2000. It includes any business or profession, whether voluntary or profit making. It does not extend to a self-help group meeting in a person's own home.

The amendment would insert a new subsection (2)(g) in clause 8, excluding organisations operated wholly or mainly by adoptive family members from the requirement to register, but it is not needed. Informal groups that meet in people's homes will not be classed as adoption support agencies. Those wishing to hold a support group meeting in their own home will not be required to register as an adoption support agency. The Government have no intention of, or interest in, preventing individuals from meeting in their homes in a supportive environment. We would encourage that. I agree that such groups can play an important role.

Tim Loughton: I anticipate that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury may want to ask the same question as mine. The Minister used the phrase ''in their own home''. For an extended group of families it might not be physically possible to meet in one of their homes. They might need to use the village school, community centre or school hall. Would there still be no restriction in that event?

Jacqui Smith: The emphasis that I placed on meeting in a group member's own home did not imply that that was a condition. The important point is that the groups should be informal self-help groups that do not provide counselling or some of the other services that the clause is rightly intended to regulate. There has, of course, been some demand for regulation of such groups.

Sandra Gidley: Many of the groups first came into being through groups of families coming together for mutual support. When does a group cease to be a group of families and become a group that requires registration?

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Lady is right. What starts as a self-help group may develop into a group that offers counselling or other services to others. The point at which a group begins in a substantial way to provide adoption support services to others—this emerged clearly when we took evidence—is the point at which it would come under the auspices of the Bill. It would be a question of fact in each case, but I give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he wanted—that groups of adoptive families informally joining together for mutual support, not for the provision of services as I have outlined, would not be subject to the registration requirements.

Mr. Brazier: I am delighted with the Minister's assurances. If the amendment is otiose, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy put it, it can easily be withdrawn. My key question is a follow-up to that asked by the hon. Member for Romsey. In quoting a moment ago from the Care Standards Act 2000 the Minister referred to voluntary organisations—rightly, because a high proportion of organisations that need to be regulated are voluntary. The crucial transition that she described relates to the provision of services. However, an over-bureaucratic, domineering local authority could easily argue, for example, that a self-help group involved counselling. My direct question is: why can we not employ a definition that turns on whether the group is wholly or mainly run by adopters? That would create a clear dividing line.

Jacqui Smith: The details of the registration will be the subject of regulations and national minimum standards at a later stage. However, the hon. Gentleman misunderstands one point. The registration will be undertaken not by some supposedly irrational or unreasonable local authority, but by the completely rational and reasonable National Care Standards Commission.

Mr. Brazier: I am grateful for the Minister's clear assurances. I hope that she has covered all the points. I retain a slight uneasiness after my earlier experience, to which, Mrs. Roe, I promise I shall not refer again. However, on the basis of the Minister's categoric assurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Tim Loughton: On a point of order, Mrs. Roe. I realise that the time is approaching 5 o'clock, when we may end our deliberations. You may not be aware that, during this morning's discussions under the chairmanship of Mr. Stevenson, the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy was placed on record as undertaking to give a bottle of wine—although its location was unspecified—for the best pronunciation of the name of his constituency. Indeed, Mr. Stevenson was heard to express interest in whether he would qualify for such an award. We would not want the Committee's proceedings today to end without allowing the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy to judge who has won that prestigious award.

Kevin Brennan: Further to that point of order, Mrs. Roe. I feel that it would only be fair to other members of the Committee if I disqualified myself from the competition.

The Chairman: I am sure that hon. Members will be aware that nothing in Standing Orders qualifies me to determine whether the prize should be given, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Cant—[Laughter.]— the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy will determine that himself.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Angela Smith.]

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Five o'clock till Tuesday 18 December at half-past Ten o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Roe, Mrs. Marion (Chairman)
Bellingham, Mr.
Blackman, Liz
Brazier, Mr.
Brennan, Kevin
Dawson, Mr.
Djanogly, Mr.
Gidley, Sandra
Llwyd, Mr.
Loughton, Tim
Love, Mr.
Moran, Margaret
Munn, Ms
Shaw, Mr.
Smith, Angela
Smith, Jacqui
Walter, Mr.

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Prepared 13 December 2001